When American Idol first started more than a decade, I loved the show because it was new, interesting, and exciting. America agreed, and it quickly became must-see TV. In the years to follow, American Idol became the main way for new artists to gain exposure to people so they could have some sort of career in the entertainment business. Mandisa, who sang on Idol, was just at my church singing songs about Jesus, and she has a fine career in Christian music. Other Idols alums have had varying degrees of success in their careers, but there’s no doubt that without Idol, we wouldn’t know about these artists.
Since Idol came on the scene, many other singing competition shows have come and gone, to the point where it seems a new artist’s only chance of becoming well-known is to appear on a “reality TV” singing competition show, or else be discovered for their wild, distinct music video on YouTube (aka Psy with “Gangnam Style” and Macklemore with “Thrift Shop.”)
This brings me to music today, and how it’s quite different than music from the era I like to sing. I’m the Buffalo Crooner, and I entertain mostly older people with songs from the Frank Sinatra/Nat “King” Cole days. Back then, tone was king. A singer’s tone mattered more than their looks, their rhythms, and their vocal power. Think about it– you wouldn’t hear Frank Sinatra over-singing like you hear today’s artists “singing.” Bobby Darin, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day and many others from the 1940s and 1950s relied on their unique vocal tones, delivering songs with understandable lyrics– in a way, it was if they were using an exaggerated version of their normal speaking voice to talk you through their song, sharing a story about love and other common themes.
American Idol ruined singing.
These days, tone is not the prominent feature of popular music. Instead, it’s almost all about histrionics. For those of you who don’t know what that word means, I will name some singers: Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, and Beyonce. Today’s singers are often more about vocal and visual theatrics than singing. Rather than just simply singing a song, they take notes and play with them, running them up and down the scale like a vocal roller coaster. Subtlety and nuance are out. “Belting” every song with diva power– even for some of the male singers–is the order of the day.
In the old days, singers were known for their tone, being on pitch, and having naturally nice voices. Today’s singers are so digitally-enhanced, that you’d be hard-pressed to ask them to sing their own songs without a computer aiding them. Furthermore, today’s younger singers sing lyrics that they don’t even understand, to the point where, instead of telling you a story from a sense of place, purpose and meaning, they’re just spewing gibberish and goobledygook. If singing was a sport, today singing would be gymnastics. Lots of ups and downs to show off, with more show than substance.
It’s no wonder Adele made such an impact on the world. Here’s a young lady who’s not stick thin, and she doesn’t dance in a tube-top on stage when singing. She just sings. And she sings well, with a good amount of emotion, but not over-the-top. She doesn’t try hard to wow you with crazy high loud notes and vocal acrobatics. She just sings.
American Idol, radio and music in general–these days–tends to reward singers in the style of Christina Aguilera, Pink, Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake, Adam Levine, and Rihanna– the show offs doing vocal acrobatics to overproduced dance music.
Thankfully people like Michael Buble, Josh Groban and Adele harken back to the Sinatra era when tone mattered. I can only hope more and more artists like them dominate the airwaves and sales charts in the years to come.